Austin Healey History

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Austin Healey History

Austin-Healey

 1953 - 1979
Country:
UK

Donald Mitchell Healey



Donald Mitchell Healey, noted British rally driver, automobile engineer, and speed record holder, was born on July 3, 1898 in Perranporth, North Cornwall, England. Following an apprenticeship at Sopwith Aviation, he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and earned his "wings" in 1916.

After World War 1, he returned home to study motorcars and engineering. He opened a garage, where his interest grew in rally competition. In 1931 he would win the Monte Carlo rally outright in a 4.5 litre Invicta - the first in a string of racing successes that would see him enjoy an enviable reputation as one of the greatest European rally drivers of the 1930's, 40's and early 50's.

In 1933 Healey joined Triumph, of Coventry, and soon became their technical director - but it was after World War 2 that he was finally able to branch out on his own, setting up a small factory in Warwick and building the first "Healey" cars, fitted with Riley engines. The public soon became aware of the new marque when in 1946 the "Elliot" became the first production saloon to cover 100 miles an hour.

Donald Healey Wins The 1952 Leonard Lord Design Competition



But Donald Healeys big break came in 1952 when Leonard Lord, BMC's Chief Executive, sponsored an informal 'design competition' for the development of a new sports-car to use Austin and BMC components. The competition was fierce, with MG in the running and putting forward the design that would eventually become the MGA.

But even though MG were now a member of the BMC empire, it was Donald Healey's prototype "Healey 100" (finished just before the Earls Court motor show of 1952), which would go on to win the competition. On show opening day Lord inspected the car, offered to take it over at once, and re-named it "Austin-Healey".

Built Using Austin A90 Mechanicals



The new car was manufactured in Longbridge, Birmingham, and used a chassis frame welded to its body shell during assembly, and used an Austin A90 Atlantic 2660cc engine delivering 90bhp at 4000rpm. The A90's transmission was also used, but first gear selection was blanked off, a "Laycock" overdrive operative on top and second gears, creating a pseudo five-speed transmission.

It went on sale in the spring of 1953, but while many admired the build quality of the new car, its cost was prohibitive and, after a few months of negligible sales, the price was reduced by £100 pounds to £1223. The body style was sleek and beautiful with a comfortable two-seater cockpit, and a shallow, but useful, luggage boot. There were perspex side screens, but full if rather basic weather protection, and a heater was standard. In essence, this body shell, style and chassis was to be used until the end of 1967, when the Austin-Healey 3000 finally went out of production.

The Competition BN2



Healey would also develop a special competition version of the BN2 in his own Warwick workshops. Dubbed the "100S", it had a special Weslake cylinder head and was good for 132bhp at 4700rpm. The 100S also featured disc brakes on all four wheels, light-allay bodywork and, to keep weight at a minimum, no bumpers.

Austin Healey 100
When you look at the Austin-Healey 100 you can quickly see why BMC chief Leonard Lord fell in love with the design...

Austin Healey 100
Powered by the Austin Atlantic's sweet 2660cc engine, the new Healey was always going to be a success...

Austin Healey Sprite
With headlamps fixed to a front hinged bonet, and having no external boot lid, the 1958 Mk. I Sprite was far from conventional...

Austin Healey 3000
The 1962 re-style of the 3000 would see the introdution of a curved windscreen...

Austin Healey Sprite Mk. II
The Mk. II Sprite was far more conventional than the earlier "Frog-Eye", but strangely was out-sold by its badge-reengineered cousin the MG Midget...

Austin Healey Sprite Mk. III
The Mk. III Sprite was, sadly, the last of the Healeys even though the MG Midget would continue for another 9 years...
An effective class-winner, approximately 50 were built and were used on race circuits all over the globe. Its best performance was arguably the third place overall at Sebring, in the 12 Hour Race of 1954, driven by Lance Macklin and George Huntoon. A "Streamliner" derivative of the car fitted with a supercharged 224bhp version of the engine would achieve a top speed of 192mph on the Bonneville, Utah Salt Flats in 1954.

Tradgedy At Le Mans



Naturally the new "Healey" was entered into many races, and after the good showing of the "Nash-Healey" in the 1952 Le Mans (where it finished third overall) it seemed the perfect venue to showcase the cars abilities. But tragedy was waiting around the corner at the 1955 event. Some three hours into the race, a 300 SLR would collide with an Austin-Healey, and then launch itself into the grandstand.

The crash and ensuing fire killed the 300 SLR's driver and over 80 of the spectators. Mercedes-Benz immediately withdrew the remainder of its team, even as Sterling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio in their SLR were leading the top Jaguar D-Type by more than two laps. The Austin-Healey was driven by Lance Macklin, who survived, and the car stayed on the track only moderately damaged. The Healey did no damage to any other car or person and Lance walked away. Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb, who were piloting the Jag, went on to a rather hollow victory.

The Big Healeys



Production of four-cylinder 'Big Healeys' went on to the summer of 1956, by which time 10,688 BN1's and 3,924 of the improved, four-speed transmission BN2s had been built. Unlike Mercedes and MG who pulled out of racing following the 1955 Le Mans, Donald Healey remained committed to the race track, and so he redesigned the car and re-launched it as the "100 Six".

Sitting on a slightly longer wheelbase, the car used the 2639cc BMC C-Series six-cylinder engine. There were modifications to the decoration, the grille, and the cockpit, but most importantly a pair of 'occasional' rear seats had been squeezed into place. In 1956 Donald Healey returned to the Utah salt flats with a "Streamliner" version of his 100 Six, where he recorded a top speed of 203.11mph thereby joining the exclusive "200+ mph club".

In standard form, the new engine produced 102bhp, but the car was 400lb heavier than before and this in turn led to a drop off in performance - slightly down on the BN1 and BN2. When new, it was priced at £1144 in the UK, compared with the £1021 for the Triumph TR3

That was quite a sum in those days, but it did add to the status of an Austin-Healey driver! In the autumn of 1957 assembly of Big Healey's was moved to the MG factory in Abingdon. Shortly afterwards a new more efficient 117bhp engine was developed for the car, and in 1958 the two-seater body style was re-introduced, that model being manufactured side by side with the existing 2+2.

The Austin Healey 3000 Is Launched



By mid 1959 the engine would again be enlarged, this time to 2912cc. Front disc brakes were now standard, and the legendary "Austin-Healey 3000" was launched. The new engine was good for 124bhp, and would give the 3000 a top speed or around 115mph. Immensely popular, the 3000 would enjoy an eight year run, during which time the engine power would be progressively increased to 148hp.

A re-style in 1962 would see the 3000 fitted with a curved windscreen and window-winders fitted to the doors. Then in 1964 the interior was embellished with the fitment of a lovely wooden facia and plush new interior, and by the end of 1967 some 57,352 six cylinder engine cars had been manufactured.

The 3000 was an extremely successful competition car, particularly in rally's, where it would notch up outright wins in the Alpine Rally of 1961 and 1962, the Austrian Alpine of 1964 and Liege-Rome-Liege of 1960 (Pat Moss) and 1964. With BMC's encouragement, the Healey's designers also produced sports-car design, based on Austin A35 components.

From The Austin A35 A Sports Car Is Born



The result was the 1958 Sprite, which was assembled at Abingdon. Based on a simple but sturdy steel unit construction shell the Sprite had immense character, acceptable performance, direct steering and good handling, all for a very (at the time) purchase price. The Sprites 948cc engine was the BMC A-Series, which developed 43bhp at 5200rpm making the Sprite good for a top speed of 85mph. The front suspension was borrowed from the A35, while the steering rack, back axle and brakes were borrowed from the Morris Minor.

The distinctive bodywork featured bulbous headlamps, and the car was quickly dubbed the "frog-eye" by the motoring public. With the headlamps attached to the bonnet, it would hinge up together with the front wings from the scuttle. To save costs the designers did away with an external boot system, making it necessary to tilt the driver and passenger seat forward to gain access to the rear compartment. But, at £667 when new, it was considered extremely affordable and there was virtually no sports-car competition at that price point.

Naturally the car sold very well, and after 48,999 cars had been built, the "frog-eye" was replaced by the Sprite Mk. II in mid-1961. The Mk. II Sprite received considerable modifications, particularly to the body work. It was now a far more conventional looking vehicle, featuring squared up front and rear styling, a normally opening bonnet, and a far more convenient boot-lid.

Those that have read the Morris Garages article on this site would know that it was a "badge-engineered" version of this car that was sold as the MG Midget. The first of the Mk. II's retained the 948cc engine, but in the autumn of 1962 this was replaced by 1098cc derivative. In 1964 came the Mk. III, now fitted with window winders on the doors, and a half-elliptic (instead of cantilever) leaf spring rear suspension - and naturally a more powerful engine.

The final major change came in October 1966, when the de-tuned version of the Mini-Cooper S 1275cc engine, with and a 95mph top speed, was made available. But strangely it was the MG that was gaining in popularity - the "Midget" outselling the "Sprite" consistently every year. This remains the only time (that we are aware of) that a badge-reengineered car has outsold the original!

The Formation Of British Leyland Spells The End



After the formation of British Leyland in 1968 the days of the Austin-Healey were numbered. Two years later, in 1970, the last Sprite was manufactured after a total of some 79,338 Mk. II & III's had been built. Instead of wasting already manufactured body shells, a further 1,022 "Austin" only Sprites were manufactured in 1971, but unfortunately the "Healey" name was no-longer.

The legacy of the Healey engineers would continue in the form of the MG Midget until 1979, that car now using the 1493cc Triumph Spitfire engine, but it seemed the powers to be had no time for manufacturing sports-cars, once the jewel in the crown of the British automobile industry, and the MG was allowed to run well past its use-by date and was eventually pensioned off. This was indeed a sad time for many motoring enthusiasts.

Also see: Austin-Healey Car Reviews| Sprites and Midgets
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